Monday, January 26, 2015

Drew goes to Madagascar: Part 1: Packing

I would like to think of myself as someone who doesn't need a lot when travelling. I imagine myself as being capable of packing a change of clothes and a camera into a backpack and being able to whisk myself away. So it is with mild alarm that I began packing my two backpacks for my semester abroad to Madagascar and discovered that I, on one hand had, entirely way too much stuff to fit into my bags, and on the other how little I was actually taking.
Behold the chaos: my sister's room becomes a staging area. Everything will fit into those two packs.


I will be in Madagascar for three and a half months, during which my housing will supposedly range everywhere from homestays glamorously equipped with mattresses and mosquito nets to primitive camping in the bush. So in addition to having to weigh whether I want to bring an extra pair of pants or seven pairs of underwear (I eventually downgraded to five), I am trying to wedge a two person tent, water filters, a sleeping bag, a med kit stocked enough to last me it seems several successive waves of the bubonic plague (which funnily enough is actually a problem right now in Madagascar), and other various accoutrements I've thrown together on the off chance I might need them. Do I need a camp pillow? Probably not, I decided. Do I need my large DSLR camera with three separate lenses? Probably yes. Stepping on the scale with the two packs revealed around 70 pounds of gear I'd be hauling around, and I anticipate more problems trying to run to my gate in De Gaulle than having to carry everything I own around with me.

As I've revealed to people this past semester where I in fact will be studying abroad, they have responded in three ways. One response entails the person reverently shouting LEMURS as their eyes grow wide and glaze over at the thought of the critters they saw on Planet Earth. That ends the conversation relatively quickly. In the second response, they make a crack at the movie "Madagascar," a movie which I have seen only because I was Best Buy with my dad in 2006 buying a TV and I ended up watching the entire movie on the hundred flickering screens while he discussed the finer points of financing and the like for an eternity with the salesman. That's the one response I haven't figured out what to say about. With the last response, someone informs me with a worried expression that they read on the top right news blurb on facebook that there's bubonic plague in Madagascar. Or that won't I get Ebola??  Fortunately, I have been assured that the plague isn't in an outbreak currently. but that it comes around every year like the flu, and it only made the news this year because some personality from the capital died. Also, Ebola being in West Africa currently, is several thousand miles away from Madagascar. In addition, as my friend Alex told me, in the computer game Pandemic where you are a virus trying to take over the world, Madagascar always immediately quarantines itself and being an island nation, is almost impossible to infect and win. Oh well.

Jokes aside, I will be spending my semester in Madagascar studying biodiversity and natural resource management in one of the most biologically unique places in the world. Madagascar has become an isolated island paradise where radiation of a few key organisms (such as lemurs, chameleons, and orchids) has exploded into many specialized species. Around 90% of all organisms on Madagascar are endemic, which means they are found no where else in the world. This is (or at least was) a proverbial paradise with rainforests, savannah, temperate forests, and desert all on one island brimming with unique and wonderful organisms. However, the arrival of people on Madagascar only around 1500 years ago has destroyed much of these ecosystems. The Malagasy are the seventh poorest people on the planet, and rely on tavy, or slash-and-burn agriculture in order to survive. In recent memory (1990) a drought devastated the south (where I will be staying), and a bloodless 2009 coup shook the already weak government and stopped outright many aid imports from the US in response. As a result, the few remaining pristine ecosystems on Madagascar are under dire threat from exploitation, and yet to protect them from all human activity would spell ruin for all those in the region. It's a tough situation, and the program I will be on in Madagascar will attempt to examine these issues and look for solutions.

It is my hope that I will be able to update this blog relatively frequently with photos and text, but I've been assured that the internet is extremely weak even in internet cafes. I will do my best to post photos and at the very least experiences I've found worthwhile. If you would like to contact me while in Madagascar, please use facebook or email. If you want to send me letters, let me know and I will give you my address. But right now, it's back to deciding how many shorts I really need and making sure I can access my malaria medication without disemboweling my entire pack